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Book Review: Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers by Gyles Brandreth

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Gyles Brandreth has taken great license in making one of the most controversial figures of Victorian society and literary circles of his day an amateur sleuth.

Amazingly, this works rather splendidly. Through the books I’ve read–The Candlelight Murders, Dead Man’s Smile, and now the fourth book, The Nest of Vipers–Oscar’s powers of deduction go from strength to strength as does Brandreth’s prowess as a writer of mystery fiction.

I enjoyed The Candlelight Murders and was surprised by the revelation of those with murderous intent. Dead Man’s Smile was where I was first introduced to Oscar in Paris, in the theatre; how wonderful. I found both books enjoyable reads although a little clunky in places, the flow of Brandreth’s narrative not always feeling comfortable with me, leading to paragraphs where I had to determine to plough on rather than glide through.

And then you have Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers. I breezed through this book, delighting in the twists of the narrative; pleased by the inclusion of Arthur Conan Doyle again and reveling in the insight into the royal avoidance of scandal that seems surprisingly paramount to all suspects concerned in the narrative to the detriment of the pursuit of justice and, of course, the truth.

The Duchess of Albemarle is found murdered in her telephone room after a prestigious party held at her house. Initially, it is assumed that she died of an enfeebled heart. However, it transpires that the Duchess is a lustful woman with an appetite that must be satiated; an appetite the Duke is unable to assuage.

Linked with the Prince of Wales as one of his many lovers, the royal household is keen to avoid a scandal but the Prince is also curious about the truth of the Duchess’ demise and so instructs or orders Oscar and his band of followers, Robert Sherard, biographer and Conan Doyle, admirer and friend, to investigate. Which they duly do.

There are many possible suspects who come under the detective eye of Oscar Wilde, and he deduces the facts and surmises the truth in a way which is uncannily like Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. Oscar’s insights litter the text, his astute observation of people’s behaviour and accomplished (and some might say rather lucky) guess work, revealing much about the characters around him and these are greatly entertaining.

Oscar keeps much to himself, allowing Brandreth the wonderful climactic reveal at the end of the book where the killer is uncovered in a Poirot style summary and confrontation. And this sits easily with the portrayal of Oscar as showman and orchestrator, the person in the centre of attention to whom others clamour.

Brandreth’s style of narrative structure is developed in Nest of Vipers, the author making great use of secondary sources as opposed to Sherard’s sole voice and the odd smattering of telegrams.

At the opening, Brandreth has Sherard talking to Wilde about publishing the story of the Duchess’ murder and asks him to read through his gathered source material corresponding to the affair. We are then beadily looking over Oscar’s shoulder while he peruses the papers which are collated chronologically and include diary entries, telegrams, party invitations, etc.

Adopting this format makes the book exceptionally easy to digest, avoiding the turgidity that sometimes permeated Sherard’s narrative. The inclusion of letters by other applauded writers and friends of Oscar like the aforementioned Doyle and also Bram Stoker, author of Dracula add the element that Brandreth’s book spans two worlds rather well, those of fiction and reality.

So, another great mystery story comes to an end. What were also interestingly provided in this novel which I liked were the diary entries of an intimate of Wilde, Rex LaSalle. Whilst also being a suspect, he is an acolyte of Oscar’s who is disarmingly attractive and also claims to be a vampire.

His personal private encounters with our hero allow a small, albeit fictional glimpse beneath the veneer of Wilde’s persona into a world where he is more vulnerable, more exposed. I liked these hints of intimacy, the man beyond the image.

Altogether, I think Nest of Vipers is Brandreth’s best book to date. I wonder where Wilde will wander (and wonder) next.

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